Top 10 laptops of 2016

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Top 10 laptops of 2016

Shopping for one or more laptops? We’ve selected the best for your business – and for you.

Laptops aren't exactly in short supply – the hard part is selecting the great ones from the also-rans. Don't fret, though: our team of reviewers have selected the finest and best-value laptops so far in 2016.

Of course, laptops come in all shapes and sizes, with different specifications and price points – and we’ve tried to ensure our top 10 reflects this diversity:

  1. Dell XPS 13 (from $1,799)
  2. Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display (from $1,999)
  3. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (from $1,349)
  4. Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 (from $699)
  5. Dell XPS 15 (from $2,499)
  6. HP Stream 11 ($199.99)
  7. Dell Chromebook 13 7310 ($969.10)
  8. Microsoft Surface Book (from $2,299)
  9. Apple MacBook 12in (from $1,999)
  10. HP ZBook Studio (from $5008).

Remember that what’s good for us may not be ideal for you, so the above order doesn’t necessarily reflect a hierarchy based on the best or best value.

There’s no need to restrict yourself to this list either, because there are plenty of other good laptops – and from other brands such as Acer, Asus, Lenovo and Toshiba – available. Just be sure to follow our advice in our laptop buyer’s guide and shop around. 

First review: Dell XPS 13.

Dell XPS 13

Price: from $1,799

Screen 13.3in (Full HD or 3,200 x 1,800 pixels) touchscreen
Processor Intel Core i5-6200U or i7-6560U
Storage 128–512GB SSD
RAM 8-16GB
Weight 1.29kg

Dell was tantalisingly close to ultraportable perfection with the previous XPS 13, but it has well and truly cracked it now with this new, improved model. The sixth-generation Intel Core (Skylake) processors improve performance and extend battery life, and an array of minor tweaks has pushed the XPS 13 towards ultraportable perfection.

The new lighting-fast NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) SSDs have had a huge impact, and while the new Skylake processors are more about greater efficiency than dramatic performance improvements, the combination of the two makes for a laptop that feels staggeringly fast and responsive.

Connectivity is relatively minimal, as you'd expect for such a slim, light laptop, but the twin Thunderbolt 3 ports add a lot of flexibility. It's tempting to gripe about needing to buy a whole new set of USB Type-C graphics adapters, but the benefits of having access to a wide variety of high-end external devices, such as super-fast storage arrays, external graphics enclosures and professional-class video and audio devices, is ample reward.

Battery life is something of a weak point – it's certainly nowhere near as long-lasting as the 13in MacBook Pro, for instance – but it's not bad by any means. If it's a stunning Windows ultraportable you're after, there's no better option than the Dell XPS 13.

Next review: Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display

Price: from $1,999

Screen 13.3in (2,560 x 1,600 pixels)
Processor Intel Core i5-5257U, i5-5287U or i7-5557U 
Storage 128GB–1TB SSD
RAM 8–16GB
Weight 1.58kg

It's telling that, even now, the 2015 MacBook Pro is still one of the best laptops you can buy. At 1.58kg and 1.8cm thick, it’s not lightest or thinnest 13-inch laptop around, but it's concoction of power, battery life, quality and all-round capability are tough to beat at the price.

The downside is the MacBook Pro still uses fifth-generation Intel Core (Broadwell) processors, not the latest (Skylake) generation. However, they’re higher-powered (28W) processors than the ultra-low-voltage (ULV) chips used in most ultra-slim laptops.

Those processors, combined with the MacBook Pro's larger chassis (which helps by allowing heat to dissipate, for example) deliver an impressive amount of raw power. And combined with blazingly quick solid state drives (SSDs), the MacBook Pro still shows most Skylake-powered laptops a clean pair of heels when it comes to performance.

The high-resolution display is also brilliant, providing pixel-perfect, colour-accurate images from the get-go, and the array of connectivity hits the mark. With twin Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3 ports and an HDMI output for hassle-free multi-monitor shenanigans, the MacBook Pro has enough flexibility to please demanding professionals. 

Other features of note include the innovative Force Touch trackpad – not only is it the best touchpad on any laptop, but OS X's baked-in gesture support means you'll rarely find yourself reaching for a mouse. It makes bouncing between multiple apps and desktops an absolute breeze.

Next review: Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

Price: from $1,349  

Screen 12in (2,736 x 1,824 pixels) touchscreen
Processor Intel Core m3-6Y30, i5-6300U or i7-6650U 
Storage 128GB–1TB SSD
RAM 8–16GB
Weight 1.05kg (including Type Cover)

Microsoft has taken the tried-and-tested Surface Pro 3 and improved it in almost every way. Given that its predecessor was already a fantastic hybrid, capable of doing a decent impersonation of a laptop and making for a superlative tablet, the Surface Pro 4 is an absolute delight.

As you'd hope, the high-resolution screen is amazing: with oodles of brightness and superb colour accuracy, it's brilliant for everything from photo editing to watching movies. Factor in the comfy, accurate Surface Pen and the Surface Pro 4 impresses before you even reach for the optional Type Cover. 

The Type Cover still costs another $199.95 on top, which irks slightly, although that’s more than offset by the current sale (at the time of writing) with the Surface Pro 4 priced from as low as $1,146.65.

The kickstand at the tablet's rear is now fully adjustable – rather than being limited to two positions – it's far easier to use the Surface Pro 4 comfortably in a variety of scenarios. It's still very top-heavy on your lap, but the strong magnets do their bit to stop the tablet toppling backwards, and it's better than before. Plus, if security is top of your shopping list, you can splash out $249.95 on the Type Cover with Fingerprint ID instead.

In terms of performance, the Core i5 and Core i7 models do a good job – especially so considering how thin the tablet is – and the Core m3 version provides a cheaper, low-powered option if you're that way inclined. Battery life isn't mind-blowing, but it's good enough. The only shame is that Microsoft hasn't yet adopted the versatile USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 standards.

Next review: Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1.

Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1

Price: from $699

Screen 11.6in (1366 x 768 pixels)  touchscreen
Processor Intel Pentium N3700 or Core i3-6100U
Storage 128GB SSD
RAM 4GB
Weight 1.39kg

If the Surface Pro 4 is too rich for your budget, the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series 2-in-1 might be more your speed. 

The 3000 doesn’t have a detachable keyboard like the Surface; it’s more like a conventional laptop except that the screen flips over 360 degrees. That makes it too heavy to hold like a standard tablet for lengthy periods, but it’s still much more flexible than a regular laptop.

That said, with its 11.6-inch screen and weighing 1.39kg, it’s still an ultraportable laptop.

It’s not the cheapest 2-in-1, but we’d argue it’s the best value. While entry-level models typically come with just 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and low-end Intel Celeron or Atom processor, the 3000 offers 4GB of memory, 128GB SSD and option for a latest-generation Core i3 chip (for $100 extra).

That makes the 3000 suitable for much more than email and cloud applications – occupying a price-performance sweet spot between entry-level 2-in-1s and higher-end laptops. Its battery life is quite decent too.

The relatively small, low-resolution screen is a compromise, but overall the 3000 is quite a usable little laptop. It's also even better value than usual (at the time of writing), with Dell offering the 3000 for as low as $559 on the company's website.

Next review: Dell XPS 15.

Dell XPS 15

Price: from $2,499

Screen 15.6in Full HD or 4K touchscreen
Processor Intel Core i7-6700HQ 
Storage 128–1TB SSD
RAM 8–32GB
Weight 2kg

If you've been wishing for a super-powered laptop that doesn't weigh a ton, the Dell XPS 15 packs a huge amount of wallop into every one of its 2,000 grams. 

There aren't many 2kg laptops that can really smash through the latest games, for instance, but the XPS 15 is one of them. Thanks to the immensely capable Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M GPU, there's enough power to handle older titles at the screen's massive 4K resolution, and enough grunt to run even the most demanding titles at 1080p or above. 

This is a laptop that's capable of much, much more than taking on the latest bad guys, however. The quad-core Skylake Core i7 processor provides enough power to handle even the most demanding workloads. With the ability to specify as much as 32GB of DDR4 RAM and 1TB of super-fast NVMe flash storage, the XPS 15 is a force to be reckoned with – if you can afford it.

Like its smaller sibling, the XPS 15 also packs in USB, Thunderbolt 3, 802.11ac and all the connectivity you could ask for. Apart from a fingerprint reader. Or a TV aerial.

Battery life suffers due to the 4K screen (which is great, by the way) and the suite of high-powered componentry, but even that can't sour the XPS 15's appeal. If you want a true do-it-all laptop, they don't come much better. 

Next review: HP Stream 11.

HP Stream 11

Price: $199.99

Screen 11.6in (1,366 x 768 pixels)
Processor Intel Celeron N3050 
Storage 16GB SSD
RAM 2GB
Weight 1.18kg

Need a compact, portable Windows 10 laptop for under $200? Well, you're in luck.

So what are you getting for the cash? Well, HP’s budget Windows laptop comes in a choice of vibrant blue or magenta finishes, and its slim, lightweight chassis weighs a super-portable 1.18kg. This is a laptop you can genuinely sling in a bag every day, or give to your kids without worrying about it weighing them, or you, down.

Thanks to Windows 10 Home, it's more versatile than a Chromebook, but it still works brilliantly with online apps via a browser. It's able to run more conventional Windows software if you’re sensible about your requirements – although the in-built 16GB of storage fills up quickly, so you’ll need to pair it with an external USB 3 hard drive or a large-capacity microSD card.

Performance from the Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM is unsurprisingly modest, but Windows 10 goes just fine, as long as you don't expect to run resource-hungry applications or weigh it down with too many browser tabs or concurrent programs. Battery life is decent, too.

For the money, the HP Stream 11 is a bargain.

Next review: Dell Chromebook 13 7310.

Dell Chromebook 13 7310

Price: $969.10

Screen 13.3in (1,920 x 1,080 pixels)
Processor Intel Core i3-5005U 
Storage 16GB SSD
RAM 4GB
Weight 1.47kg

What’s this, a Chromebook for nearly $1,000? What you’re actually getting with the Dell Chromebook 13 7310 is a premium-quality business laptop that happens to run Google’s Chrome operating system.

It features a high-end metal and carbon-clad build, a superb keyboard and touchpad and great battery life in a tough, handsome package. It also offers a 13.3in Full HD (non-touchscreen) display, 16GB SSD and a Core i3 chip.

That processor is a previous-generation Intel chip and the storage may not be overly generous, but both are fine for Google’s cloud-based OS.

Those looking for a cheaper Chromebook could consider the HP Chromebook 14 or Acer Chromebook R11 that we’ve reviewed previously. However, the Chromebook 13 7310 is a gorgeous laptop for the money – and you’d be hard-pressed to get a similar-quality Windows business laptop for the same money. 

Next review: Microsoft Surface Book.

Microsoft Surface Book

Price: from $2,299

Screen 13.5in (3,000 x 2,000 pixels) touchscreen
Processor Intel Core i5-6300U (2.4GHz) or i7-6600U (2.6GHz)
Storage 128–512GB SSD
RAM 8–16GB
Weight 1.58kg

The Microsoft Surface Book is beautiful, fairly powerful and packed with some awesome design flourishes, but there’s no getting around the fact that there are better value laptops in this line-up. 

Microsoft has made Surface Book more affordable in a current sale (at the time of writing) with pricing starting at $1,954.15 – but even that’s quite expensive.

The Surface Book's appeal comes down to the fact it's a brilliant laptop and a superb tablet: it's one of the few hybrid designs that makes very few concessions to usability. If you've always dreamed of a device that blends the tablet brilliance of a Surface Pro 4 and matching Surface Pen with the laptop excellence of something like Apple's 13in MacBook Pro, the Surface Book is as close as you're going to get. 

The design won't be to everyone's taste, but it looks and feels like a high-end device should. While most of the hardware is stored in the screen, which allows it to double as a king-sized Surface tablet (albeit one with minimal battery life), the pricier models hide a discrete Nvidia GPU inside the keyboard base. In laptop mode, this provides the Surface Book with a good deal more gaming and graphics grunt than most of its rivals. It's only roughly equivalent to a GeForce GT 940M GPU, however, so it's no match for the likes of the Dell XPS 15.

Still, if you can afford the Surface Book, and its unusual array of talents suit your needs, you're unlikely to be disappointed.

Next review: Apple MacBook.

Apple MacBook (12in)

Price: from $1,999

Screen 12in (2,304 x 1,440 pixels) touchscreen
Processor Intel Core m3-6Y30, m5-6Y54 or m7-6Y75
Storage 256–512GB SSD
RAM 8GB
Weight 923g

There's no denying it: the Apple MacBook is a sub-1kg wonder. If your priority is a machine that's light and just fast enough to handle email, cloud applications and the odd foray into more demanding software, the MacBook is astonishingly good.

The Core M processor isn't quick enough to rush through sustained, heavy workloads, but the upgrade to Intel's Skylake generation of processors in 2016 has given the little MacBook a welcome, and much-needed, performance increase. And regardless of the processor's modest capabilities, the blazingly quick SSD does its bit to keep things feeling fluid.

Of course, this minimalist, ultra-light portable won't be for everyone. It isn't powerful enough to do the same jobs as a MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display; it's expensive, considering that it will most likely play the role of a high-end netbook; and connectivity – limited to a single Type-C USB port – isn't ideal for a work machine. 

The short-travel keys on the keyboard won't appeal to everyone, but factor in the low weight, the improved battery life of the 2016 generation and a brilliant, high-DPI screen, and the MacBook could be your next go-to laptop for remote working.  

Next review: HP ZBook Studio.

HP ZBook Studio

Price: from $5008

Screen 15.6in (Full HD or 3,840 x 2,160 pixels)
Processor Intel Core i7-6820HQ or Xeon E3-1505M
Storage 256GB–512GB SSD
RAM 8–32GB
Weight 2.1kg

To say this is the most powerful laptop in this line-up is to undersell just how quick the HP ZBook Studio is. It's a power-packed beast of a thing; a 15.6in laptop that packs in the kind of professional hardware that will tackle any application you can throw at it. 

The surprise, however, is that it manages to pack that grunt into a chassis which weighs a reasonable 2.1kg. That's not featherlight by any stretch, but it is light enough to carry around without investing in regular visits to the chiropractor. 

And it's got it where it counts. We tested the model with 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Xeon processor and 32GB, and it absolutely lapped up the heaviest of workloads. In our benchmarks, the HP eased past the fastest laptop we'd previously ever seen: the Dell XPS 15.

This is partly due to the lightning-fast NVMe SSD. With mind-blowing read and write speeds, this laptop will comfortably handle the biggest video and image files. If you need raw, brutal power in a laptop that you can actually lift off the desk, there's nothing quite like it.

The ‘entry-level’ model has a Full HD screen, but pay another $1,000 or so (or drop back to an Intel Core i7-6820HQ processor) and you’ll get an incredible 4K display. Wide-gamut, colour-accurate and gloriously sharp, that display turns the HP from a powerhouse into a complete, professional package. 

Is it cheap? No. Is it the best professional laptop on the planet? Probably.

Most of the reviews in this feature originally appeared on alphr.com.

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